Centre for Internet & Society

Vodafone Group PLC, the world’s second largest mobile carrier, released a report on Friday, June 6 2014 disclosing to what extent governments can request their customers’ data.

The Law Enforcement Disclosure Report, a section of a larger annual Sustainability Report began by asserting that Vodafone "customers have a right to privacy which is enshrined in international human rights law and standards and enacted through national laws."

However, the report continues, Vodafone is incapable of fully protecting its customers right to privacy, because it is bound by the laws in the various countries in which it operates. "If we do not comply with a lawful demand for assistance, governments can remove our license to operate, preventing us from providing services to our customers," The report goes into detail about the laws in each of the 29 nations where the company operates.

Vodafone’s report is one of the first published by a multinational service provider. Compiling such a report was especially difficult, according to the report, for a few reasons. Because no comparable report had been published before, Vodafone had to figure out for themselves, the “complex task” of what information they could legally publish in each country. This difficulty was compounded by the fact that Vodafone operates physical infrastructure and thus sets up a business in each of the countries where it provides services. This means that Vodafone is subject to the laws and operating licenses of each nation where it operates, unlike as a search engine such as Google, which can provide services across international borders but still be subject to United States law – where it is incorporated.

The report is an important step forward for consumer privacy. First, the Report shows that the company is aware of the conflict of interest between government authorities and its customers, and the pivotal position that the company can play in honoring the privacy of its users by providing information regarding the same in all cases where it legally can. Additionally, providing the user insight into challenges that the company faces when addressing and responding to law enforcement requests, the Report provides a brief overview of the legal qualifications that must be met in each country to access customer data. Also, Vodafone’s report has encouraged other telecom companies to disclose similar information to the public. For instance, Deutsche Telekom AG, a large European and American telecommunications company, said Vodafone’s report had led it consider releasing a report of it’s own.

Direct Government Access

The report revealed that six countries had constructed secret wires or “pipes” which allowed them access to customers’ private data. This means that the governments of these six countries have immediate access to Vodafone’s network without any due process, oversight, or accountability for these opaque practices. Essentially, the report reveals, in order to operate in one of these jurisdictions, a communications company must ensure  that authorities have, real time and direct access to all personal customer data at any time, without any specific justification. The report does not name these six nations for legal reasons.

"These pipes exist, the direct access model exists,” Vodafone's group privacy officer, Stephen Deadman, told the Guardian. “We are making a call to end direct access as a means of government agencies obtaining people's communication data. Without an official warrant, there is no external visibility. If we receive a demand we can push back against the agency. The fact that a government has to issue a piece of paper is an important constraint on how powers are used."

Data Organization

Vodafone’s Report lists the aggregate number of content requests they received in each country where it operates, and groups these requests into two major categories. The first is Lawful Interceptions, which is when the government directly listens in or reads the content of a communication. In the past, this type of action has been called wiretapping, but now includes reading the content of text messages, emails, and other communications.

The second data point Vodafone provides for each country is the number of Communications Data requests they receive from each country. These are requests for the metadata associated with customer communications, such as the numbers they have been texting and the time stamps on all of their texts and calls.

It is worth noting that all of the numbers Vodafone reports are warrant statistics rather than target statistics. Vodafone, according to the report, has chosen to include the number of times a government sent a request to Vodafone to "intrude into the private affairs of its citizens, not the extent to which those warranted activities then range across an ever-expanding multiplicity of devices, accounts and apps."

Data Construction

However, in many cases, laws in the various companies in which Vodafone operates prohibit Vodafone from publishing all or part of the aforementioned data. In fact, this is the rule rather than the exception. The majority of countries, including India, prohibit Vodafone from releasing the number of data requests they receive. Other countries publish the numbers themselves, so Vodafone has chosen not to reprint their statistics either. This is because Vodafone wants to encourage governments to take responsibility for informing their citizens of the statistics themselves.

The report also makes note of the process Vodafone went through to determine the legality of publishing these statistics. It was not always straightforward. For example, in Germany, when Vodafone’s legal team went to examine the legislation governing whether or not they could publish statistics on government data requests, they concluded that the laws were unclear, and asked German authorities for advice on how to proceed. They were informed that publishing any such statistics would be illegal, so they did not include any German numbers in their report. However, since that time, other local carriers have released similar statistics, and thus the situation remains unresolved.

Other companies have also recently released reports. Twitter, a microblogging website, Facebook, a social networking website, and Google a search engine with social network capabilities have all released comparable reports, but their reports differ from Vodafone’s in a number of ways. While Twitter, Google, and Facebook all specified the percent of requests granted, Vodafone released no similar statistics. However, Vodafone prepared discussions of the various legal constraints that each country imposed on telecom companies, giving readers an understanding of what was required in each country for authorities to access their data, a component that was left out of other recent reports. Once again, Vodafone’s report differed from those of Google Facebook and Twitter because while Vodafone opens businesses in each of the countries where it operates and is subject to their laws, Google, Facebook, and Twitter are all Internet companies and so are only governed by United States law.

Google disclosed that it received 27,427 requests over a six-month period ending in December, 2013, and also noted that the number of requests has increased consistently each six-month period since data began being compiled in 2009, when fewer than half as many requests were being made. On the other hand Google said that the percentage of requests it complied with (64% over the most recent period) had declined significantly since 2010, when it complied with 76% of requests.

Google went into less detail when explaining the process non-American authorities had to go through to access data, but did note that a Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty was the primary way governments outside of the United States could force the release of user data. Such a treaty is an agreement between the United States and another government to help each other with legal proceedings. However, the report indicated that Google might disclose user information in situations when they were not legally compelled to, and did not go into detail about how or when it did that. Thus, given the difficulty of obtaining a Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty in addition to local warrants or subpoenas, it seems likely that Google complies with many more non-American data requests than it was legally forced to.

Facebook has only released two such reports so far, for the two six month periods in 2013, but they too indicated an increasing number of requests, from roughly 26,000 to 28,147. Facebook plans to continue issuing reports every six months.

Twitter has also seen an increase of 22% in government requests between this and the previous reporting period, six months ago. Twitter attributes this increase in requests to an increase in users internationally, and it does seem that the website has a similarly growing user base, according to charts released by Twitter. It is worth noting that while large nations such as the United States and India are responsible for the majority of government requests, smaller nations such as Bulgaria and Ecuador also order telecom and Internet companies to turn over data.

Vodaphone’s Statistics

Though Vodafone’s report didn’t print statistics for the majority of the countries the report covered, looking at the few numbers they did publish can shed some light on the behavior of governments in countries where publishing such statistics is illegal.  For the countries where Vodafone does release data, the numbers of government requests for Vodafone data were much higher than for Google data. For instance, Italy requested Vodafone data 605,601 times, while requesting Google data only 896 times. This suggests that other countries such as India could be looking at many more customers’ data through telecom companies like Vodafone than Internet companies like Google.

Vodafone stressed that they were not the only telecom company that was being forced to share customers’ data, sometimes without warrants. In fact, such access was the norm in countries where authorities demanded it.

India and the Reports

India is one of the most proliferate requesters of data, second only to the United States in number of requests for data from Facebook and fourth after the United States, France and Germany in number of requests for data from Google. In the most recent six-month period, India requested data from Google 2,513 times, Facebook 3,598 times, and Twitter 19 times. The percentage of requests granted varies widely from country. For example, while Facebook complies with 79% of United States authorities’ requests, it only grants 50% of India’s requests. Google responds to 83% of US requests but only 66% of India’s.

Facebook also provides data on the number of content restrictions each country requests. A content restriction request is where an authority asks Facebook to take down a particular status, photo, video, or other web content and no longer display it on their site. India, with 4,765 requests, is the country that most often asks Facebook to remove content.

While Vodafone’s report publishes no statistics on Indian data requests, because such disclosure would be illegal, it does discuss the legal considerations they are faced with. In India, the report explains, several laws govern Internet communications. The Information Technology Act (ITA) of 2000 is the parent legislation governing information technology in India. The ITA allows certain members of Indian national or state governments order an interception of a phone call or other communication in real time, for a number of reasons. According to the report, an interception can be ordered “if the official in question believes that it is necessary to do so in the: (a) interest of sovereignty and integrity of India; (b) the security of the State; (c) friendly relations with foreign states; (d) public order; or (e) the prevention of incitement of offences.” In short, it is fairly easy for a high-ranking official to order a wiretapping in India.

The report goes on to detail Indian authorities’ abilities to request other customer data beyond a lawful interception. The Code of Criminal Procedure allows a court or police officer to ask Vodafone and other telecom companies to produce “any document or other thing” that the officer believes is necessary for any investigation. The ITA extends this ability to any information stored in any computer, and requires service providers to extend their full assistance to the government. Thus, it is not only legally simple to order a wiretapping in India; it is also very easy for authorities to obtain customer web or communication data at any time.

It is clear that Indian laws governing communication have very little protections in place for consumer privacy. However, many in India hope to change this reality. The Group of Experts chaired by Justice AP Shah, the Department of Personnel and Training, along with other concerned groups have been working towards the  drafting of a privacy legislation for India. According to the Report of the Group of Experts on Privacy, the legislation would fix the 50 or so privacy laws in India that are outdated and unable to protect citizen’s privacy when they use modern technology.

On the other hand, the Indian government is moving forward with a number of plans to further infringe the privacy of civilians. For example, the Central Monitoring System, a clandestine electronic surveillance program, gives India’s security agencies and income tax officials direct access to communications data in the country. The program began in 2007 and was announced publicly in 2009 to little fanfare and muted public debate. The system became operational in 2013.


Vodafone’s report indicates that it is concerned about protecting its customer’s privacy, and Vodafone’s disclosure report is an important step forward for consumer web and communication privacy. The report stresses that company practice and government policy need to come together to protect citizen’s privacy and –businesses cannot do it alone. However, the report reveals what companies can do to effect privacy reform. By challenging authorities abilities to access customer data, as well as publishing information about these powers, they bring the issue to the government’s attention and open it up to public debate. Through Vodafone’s report, the public can see why their governments are making surveillance decisions. Yet, in India, there is still little adoption of transparent business practices such as these. Perhaps if more companies were transparent about the level of government surveillance their customers were being subjected to, their practices and policies for responding to requests from law enforcement, and the laws and regulations that they are subject to - the public would press the government for stronger privacy safeguards and protections.

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